But will it pave the way for a national government?
Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned on Monday following violence indulged in by his followers against protestors demanding the exit of the Rajapaksa clan from the government.
With the resignation of the Prime Minister, the cabinet of ministers automatically stands dissolved. This should pave the way for the formation of a National Government which has been on the anvil for weeks now but held up by a lack of consensus among the political parties represented in parliament.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is yet to issue a statement on the reasons for his resignation, after saying all along that he would not go unless sacked by the President. He had also told his supporters on Monday, that he would not chicken out of his responsibilities as an elected leader and would do his best to solve the problems facing the country.
However, it appears that the violence unleashed by his supporters on the “Go Gota Go” campaigners in two places in Colombo on Monday, which led to the imposition of an island-wide curfew and the deployment of the army, had an unsettling effect on him, affecting his political confidence.
The country is already under a State of Emergency since May 6.
Twenty three persons were reportedly injured in the clashes. The clash took place outside the gates of the Prime Minister’s official residence Temple Trees, and the Presidential Secretariat on Galle Face, where groups of people were carrying on a continuous campaign to force President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign so that an efficient and corruption-free government is formed to solve the country’s pressing economic problems.
After a meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa at his official residence, his supporters, who had been brought in buses from various parts of the country, clashed with the already encamped anti-Rajapaksa protestors forcing the police to use tear gas and water cannons to disperse them.
The pro-Mahinda Rajapaksa group then marched to the Presidential Secretariat on Galle Face where the ‘Go Gota Go” campaigners were encamped. Clashes took place there too. The pro-Prime Minister group set fire to the tents put up by the protestors. Lending support to the “Go Gota Go” group were the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa. But they were booed by the protestors who expressed lack of confidence in the entire political class.
Fearing an escalation of the conflict, the police promptly clamped an island-wide curfew. In an appeal for calm, President Gotabaya said that violence would not solve the current problems and urged all to come together and find solutions. He condemned the violence and the perpetrators of violence, irrespective of political allegiances.
But despite the curfew and emergency, counter-violence began and continued in several places. Amarakeerthi Athukorala, a ruling party MP and his security guard were killed in a fracas involving anti-government protestors in Nittambuwa. The main roads were blocked at several locations as protestors waited for supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa to attack them as they passed. Buses carrying Rajapaksa loyalists were attacked by mobs in several locations in Colombo. Houses of ruling party leaders like those of Johnston Fernando and Nimal Lanzawere set afire.
Monday’s incident was a fallout of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa-Mahinda Rajapaksa clash over the issue of resignation. While President Gotabaya wanted the Prime Minister to resign so that a multi-party government could be formed to tackle the grave economic crisis, the Prime Minister wondered why he should resign when he was not responsible for the decisions which landed the country in an economic mess. He refused to be a scapegoat and challenged the President to sack him. He even threatened that he would cross over to the opposition with a large chunk of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members of parliament.
To demonstrate his grassroots-level support, the Prime Minister invited his supporters in the SLPP for a meeting on Monday at this residence. In an emotionally charged speech he said that he was ready to make any sacrifice for the welfare of the people of Sri Lanka and added: “My policy is to overcome challenges by facing them. We don’t have a habit of fleeing from challenges.”
The rhetoric was obviously meant to convey the impression that he would not meekly resign and fade into retirement. If he had chickened out and announced his resignation, his supporters, who came to hear him from near and far, would have dispersed quietly. But the fact that they attacked the anti-Rajapaksa group protesting outside, showed that the message given by the Leader was that he would dig in and fight against his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
However, since the violence might create public odium against him, Mahinda has made a tactical withdrawal. But a solution to the political question is still not within sight given the fact that the “Go Gota Go” campaign is still on, and might have got a shot in the arm after the resignation of the Prime Minister. Now, pressure is likely to mount on Gotabaya Rajapaksa to also resign.
Three of his ministers, including the prominent Channa Jayasumana and Vidura Wickramanayaka, had resigned before the Prime Minister resigned. President Gotabaya will not find it easy to find an MP capable of getting majority support and become eligible to be called upon to form a government. Top line leaders do not want to be Prime Minister in a government where the Executive President is the discredited Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The million-dollar question now is: whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa would read the writing on the wall and quit.
Gotabaya’s defense is that he can be sent out only by passing an impeachment motion, and that, he knows, is a very complicated and arduous process involving the judiciary also.